‘Survival of the fittest’: Alberta breeders struggle as demand dwindles amid Europe’s horsemeat scandal

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National Post /Jen Gerson / 

Although horsemeat has been passed off for beef as a tricky cost-saving measure in Europe, Canada tends to serve a high-end clientele.

Although horsemeat has been passed off for beef as a tricky cost-saving measure in Europe, Canada tends to serve a high-end clientele.

It was much like any other horse sale, said auctioneer Dean Edge; chatty farmers and ranchers packed the bright blue stands to watch about 60 horses be led across a thick sawdust floor to be sold to the highest bidder.

Sales in the small auction house are much as they’ve always been. Cowboy hats are still a common sight and a good market is half social event, half business. The only thing that’s changed is the price.

These days, the only people making a profit seem to be the line cooks handing out fried foods at the concession stand.

“It was a good night,” Mr. Edge said after the crowd had left. “But it’s like pulling teeth trying to get someone to bid.”

Of the five dozen horses that went up for auction, Mr. Edge predicted about 50 were sold for meat. And not for much, even at that.

“It was definitely lower. The prices were 20 cents a pound lower than a month ago.”

That’s another bad week, and Alberta’s horse breeders have had plenty.

As Europe reels at growing tales of equine meatballs and mislabeled lasagna — on Friday, Britain’s food regulator said testing had found horsemeat in ground beef at Taco Bell outlets — ranchers here are dealing with an entirely different disaster.

The two local horsemeat processing plants have all but shut operations – a slowdown that’s expected to last until next week, at least.

While distributors across the Atlantic struggle to get to the heart of the tainted meat scandal, the demand for horse flesh has dropped off. Few seem interested in buying Canada’s stock of lean, rich horsemeat.

As a result, the price per pound has fallen through the floor — again. It’s the latest in a series of setbacks for meat buyers and horse breeders already beset by ongoing policy decisions abroad that have made turning a profit on a pony almost impossible.

“The way feed costs are today, you can’t feed a horse for all you can get for them. You can’t feed a horse for slaughter,” said Bruce Flewelling, a meat buyer from Strathmore, Alta., who raises bucking horses for the rodeo market. “I’ve been processing horses all my life and years ago when we first bought them, it was used for dog food. It’s just a way of life. And I don’t think the rancher … gets upset talking about processing horses. It’s another class of people. In the horse business we call them do-gooders or tree-huggers and they’re continually at us over this process. But there’s gotta be a place that everybody … can all dispose of our older crippled processing horses.”

Four plants in Canada process horsemeat. Alberta – where a third of the country’s herd resides – is home to two of them. The other two are in Quebec, where eating delicate steaks of cheval is more common than in the anglosphere.

In 2011, Alberta exported $42-million worth of the meat, about .62% of its total haul from agricultural products sent abroad.

Insiders say it’s a niche industry; the abattoir owners generally know the butchers and shops that stock their meat. They’re therefore very confident no Canadian meat has been implicated in any of the scandals to date.

With the end of the mare urine farms and the closure of U.S. processing plants, Kathy Bartley can now purchase (or save as she sees it) papered, registered, well-bred horses that would otherwise have been bought by the horse meat industry for pennies a pound.

With the end of the mare urine farms and the closure of U.S. processing plants, Kathy Bartley can now purchase (or save as she sees it) papered, registered, well-bred horses that would otherwise have been bought by the horse meat industry for pennies a pound.

Although horsemeat has been passed off for beef as a tricky cost-saving measure in Europe, Canada tends to serve a high-end clientele.

According to the provincial government, its top market is Japan. Every week, about 100 live horses are shuttled onto aircraft and taken to Asia where they’re butchered fresh and eaten raw.

The meat itself is also shipped to France, Switzerland and Belgium.

Proponents prize the horse’s lean, sweet taste; higher in protein and lower in fat than a typical beefsteak. But the consumption of horses has always received mixed reviews in Western culture. It was once forbidden by a Papal ban ignored in France during the revolution, when the pastimes of the outcast aristocracy were put to better use in the stomachs of the poor. Since then, horse largely retained its saveur in French cuisine.

Despite this history, consumption of horse is swiftly becoming passé even in France. And this dying taste for the foodstuff is bad news in Alberta. Not just for the processing industry, but for the welfare of the horses as well.

In 2007, amid an outraged appeal by animal rights activists, horsemeat plants were shut down in the U.S. In the years following, the number of horses shipped to Canada for slaughter rose by the tens of thousands, flooding the market and sharply reducing the price local ranchers could receive for their stock.

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AUTHOR: Jerry Finch
11 Comments
  • judye michaels

    STOP using the “older crippled” horses as an EXCUSE for making MONEY from slaughtering horses. 93.3% of horses slaughtered are in good condition with no behavioral issues; 96% are under the age of 10; 70% are quarter horses. What does that tell you???!!!!!!

    March 8, 2013
    • Jade

      Standing ovation here, Judye!!!!! Turn out the lights….the party is OVER!

      March 8, 2013
  • Barbara Leonard

    That would be good unemployment to see….my wish is for every kill buyer & every slaughter plant to go broke. These unethical people brought this on themselves….and, thus, the horsemeat scandal in Europe.

    March 8, 2013
  • Kathrine Jenkins

    If they were just “processing” the “older crippled processing horses” I could agree with these poor meat buyers, BUT it is very rare that what they are buying is an older, crippled horse. What they are buying is young, in the prime horses.
    As for the Japanese market and their consuming of raw horses. Check out how “raw” they eat these horses. It will sicken you.
    Yep, I’m a do-gooder and tree hugger.

    March 8, 2013
  • Lorrie Roehm

    And no one has ever addressed the issue of Diseased horses being slaughtered and their meat entering the food supply. You know diseased horses have been slaughtered. Just think of eating horse meat from horses that had strangles, pigeon fever, etc. pus forming diseases…disgusting…remember “mad cow disease?” Only study I have been able to locate from 2002: Good info: http://www.hoofpac.com/press/bsehoofandmouth.asp

    March 8, 2013
  • Sue Wallis Lies

    Judye, you hit it right on the nail head! That crap about old, diseased horses is just that, CRAP! The meat buyers want the young, healthy up to weight horses, not old, lame, sick horses. The “unwanted” found turned out had auction tags still one them, the Mexican slaughterhouse turned them down as they were not in good weight or ill. I’m glad the horse meat market is down, lets hope Europeans learn from this debacle!

    March 8, 2013
  • …and most horses are choc-full of the medicine bute – a carcinogen. Once and for all, my horses are pets. If you steal my horse for meat I will hunt you to the ends of the earth.

    March 8, 2013
    • sherriey

      i’m with you, Lin….God help the SOB that even tries!

      March 8, 2013
  • SandiP

    Well said everyone !!!! Like Lin Br said, if you steal my horses for meat I will do the same and you will be one sorry individual.

    March 8, 2013
  • Donna Orr

    Like the rest, if you steal my horses I will hunt u down AND kill YOU. If I don’t catch you on my property and kill you there. CASTLE LAW!!!!!!!

    March 9, 2013
  • Sue

    “Its just a way of life.” Hm….so was slavery of black humans!

    March 11, 2013